Page E1.2 . 12 September 2001                     
ArchitectureWeek - Environment Department
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In the Landscape of Murcutt


Characteristic of Murcutt's work, the two main shed roofs of the Boyd building, covering the meeting room and the sleeping quarters, slope toward one another, and rainwater is captured in this "valley" for later use. For Murcutt, these simple roof forms of corrugated iron serve as a metaphor for the river valley in which the building sits, where water drains into the Shoalhaven from nearby hills and bluffs.

Murcutt likens the experience of staying at Riversdale to camping. There is no heating system (particularly noticeable during the chilly and damp midwinter evenings), and the "hallway" between the sleeping quarters and the main meeting space is a covered verandah, open at its sides.

The sleeping quarters are small and wonderfully outfitted, like a ship's cabin. Each bed nests in an alcove with a lowered ceiling and a long low window at bed height that offers a panoramic view of the river. You wake at dawn to the riotous sounds of kookaburras and look out at the wind and the light on the surface of the river and decide what kind of day it will be.

"To Furnish this Larger Room"

In the mid-1990s, Arthur Boyd left his estate in a trust to the people of Australia. Our task in the master class was to design an art center adjacent to Riversdale, consisting of galleries and offices, a theater, and a cafe, to make the trust tangible to the public.

We students were divided into groups that were organized to ensure a mix of nationalities and experience levels. We spent long feverish days working closely with the tutors, making regular visits to the nearby site, and deliberating in the meeting space about where the building should be sited, how one should approach the center, and how, as a group, to proceed.

The tutors encouraged a careful investigation of the site its climate, topography, vegetation, and views, as well as the larger patterns that influence the site, such as the regular flooding of the river as a way to develop a clear design response.

That the landscape was so new and unusual for many of us meant there was a lot to absorb, but there was also a freshness of outlook that comes from being in a place for the first time.

It became apparent that our fundamental undertaking was not so much to design a building but rather to define spaces within a larger landscape characterized by the river, meadows, and steep hills. As Leplastrier put it, our goal was to "furnish with particular purpose this larger room we are in."

Riversdale Nights

We spent festive evenings at Riversdale enjoying fine Australian wine and cuisine, and taking in thought-provoking lectures by the tutors. These presentations emphasized sources of inspiration.

Stutchbury, for example, spoke of the extreme and compelling character of the Australian landscape, something he felt he had to confront in an effort to create an architecture that is "simple, direct and obvious."

This ongoing investigation of building and landscape, and the blurring of distinctions between inside and out, is particularly evident in Stutchbury's residential work, including his own house in Clareville Beach north of Sydney (1985-91) and the nearby Israel House in Paradise Beach (1986-92).

In his talk, Leplastrier spoke of his many years of observation of the fundamental qualities of natural light. "Light gives form. No light, no form. Soft light, soft form." Looking at Richard's slides, from thousand-year-old Chinese temples to his own house, these concepts appear simple and obvious. When you attempt to achieve these qualities in your own work, you realize that it may in fact require a lifetime of trial and observation.

A Week in Newcastle

We spent the second week of the class at the University of Newcastle, up the coastal highway two hours north of Sydney. With the help of the university's fourth-year architecture students, the groups refined their projects, and at the end of the week presented their designs in a formal review.

What impressed me was not only that every group had a clear concept for the organization of the art center, but were also able to articulate and detail the architecture in a comprehensive way. This is a testament to long hours of hard work as well as to the motivational skills of Murcutt and the other tutors.

While at Newcastle, we spent one afternoon touring the many new "green" buildings on campus. A decade ago, in response to escalating energy costs, Philip Pollard, the head of physical planning at the university, made a commitment to building in a more environmentally friendly way.

Since then a number of projects have been built on campus that are innovative in their passive cooling, ventilating and lighting, were inexpensive to build (as little as $50/square foot, or $540/square meter), are inexpensive to maintain, and have won national design awards.

These include Stutchbury's Design Building (1993), Nursing Faculty Building (1997), and recently completed Life Sciences Laboratory. The campus landscape design is also impressive: native plantings have been (re)introduced throughout, and elegantly formed swales and retention terraces manage stormwater runoff in an efficient and ecologically beneficial way.

A Poetic and Resourceful Architecture

In a lecture at Newcastle, Murcutt showed a slide of a preliminary site sketch for a house he designed in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. In it, he represented in very simple graphic notation the patterns of wind, opportunities for dune revegetation, sources of drinking water, the position of the sun at various times of day and year, existing shade trees, and so on.

The project that resulted has the elemental simplicity of the Farnsworth House of Mies van der Rohe, yet it is obvious that all these external environmental factors are accounted for.

This image for me epitomized the rigorous and sincere approach towards architecture we were encouraged to pursue in the master class: that architecture is to be investigated as a medium (and not an object), distilled to its essence, to enhance our knowledge and joy of a particular place on earth.

On the last day of the class, Murcutt told us: "You travel to understand where you are from." I have now returned home with greater resolve to find inspiration in the place I live in pursuit of architecture that is poetic and resourceful.

Brook Muller is an assistant professor in the Architecture Department of the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

Interested students and practitioners are encouraged to consider participating in the 2002 Glenn Murcutt Master Class.



ArchWeek Image

The sleeping quarters of the educational retreat at Riversdale by Murcutt, Lewin, and Lark.
Photo: Brook Muller

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Riversdale sleeping quarters.
Photo: Brook Muller

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Stutchbury House, Clareville Beach, NSW, by Peter Stutchbury, 1985-91.
Photo: Brook Muller

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Israel House, Paradise Beach, NSW, by Peter Stutchbury, 1986-92.
Photo: Brook Muller

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The Architecture Building at the University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW, by James Grose, 1995.
Photo: Brook Muller

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Nurses' Faculty, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW, by Peter Stutchbury, 1997.
Photo: Brook Muller

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Marie Short Farmhouse, Kempsey, NSW, by Glenn Murcutt, 1985.
Photo: Brook Muller

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Students of the masterclass at Richard Leplastrier's House near Church Point on the Hawkesbury River, NSW.
Photo: Brook Muller


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